Kashmir is rather like the Taj Mahal - a seemingly impossible tourist clichÃ©, drenched in the purpose prose of the scores of books, pamphlets and brochures written about it. And yet, exactly as with the Taj Mahal, the reality far transcends expectations and none of the phrases quite prepare one for the enchantment of the place. The jets that fly today's traveler from Delhi to Srinagar fly across the north Indian plains, over vast brown tracts scorched by the summer sun. Then comes the first sight of the mountains as the aircraft flies over the Banihal Pass. And there it is, a dazzling change of scenery - the Vale of Kashmir - unfolding itself like some great green and gold tapestry of fields and meadows, a pattern of lozenges sectioned by glinting threads of waterways and canals.
Administratively, the Valley is part of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir that rises in tiers from the plains to encompass mountainous terrain, high altitude valleys and plateaus. To the south, below the other hills, lies the district of Jammu; to the northeast towers the great Himalaya that contains the stark and eerily beautiful district of Ladakh; but to most people, Kashmir is the Valley itself, enclosed in a magnificent amphitheater of mountain ranges.
What makes Kashmir so special ? Many things: its landscape, a lush green valley and rolling wooded uplands ringed by snowcapped mountains, crisscrossed by rivers and studded with lakes; its rich profusion of trees and flowers and fruits - the Himalayan cedar, the chinar, the ramrod - straight poplar, the pale pink foam of almond blossoms in spring, lotuses budding in the late summer heat, jewel-like cherries glowing in wooden boxes, and, in autumn, saffron-yielding crocuses in Pampore stretching purpose as far as the eye can see. And the lovely liquid sound of the Kashmiri language; the wealth of handicrafts, evoking different and subtle tactile sensations - the soft, butter feel of the famed tush shawls, the waxy smoothness of planed walnut wood, papier mache - slick to the touch and a marvel to the eye, the rough texture of the numdah and the thick, luxurious pile of a close-knotted carpet; its food - curried stalk of lotus, tangy greens and karam sag , crisp-fried chops, mutton cooked in spices and yogurt, meatballs made of finely pounded meat and simmered in a creamy-rich sauce of cardamom, thickened milk and broth, washed down with cups of kahwa, tea flavored with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron; the people - medley of races and religions - Aryan, Scythian and Mongolian; Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, faces and images closer to Central Asia than to the plains of India; a wealth of historical remains - the somber magnificence of the Sun Temple at Martand, the formal elegance of the Mughal Gardens These are all sights that make Kashmir. Other places in India have some of these, but only Kashmir has them all, and from these threads are woven the travel experience that is uniquely Kashmiri.
The creation of Kashmir is a story that has, like so much else in this land, an air of fantasy and other-worldliness. Once upon a time, the Valley was a vast lake, `deep as the sky', and the playground of the gods. But it was haunted by a demon that plundered and ravaged the people living on its shores. In despair, they appealed to the saint Kashyap to save them, which he did by striking a depression to the west and draining the lake of its waters. The demon was slain, and the Valley was named after its savior, Kashyapa-mar , or Kashmir. Strange as this may seem, paleontologists have reported discoveries of coral and other marine fossils at great heights here.
One version of this legend appears in the Nilamat Purana , the earliest known extant text on Kashmir. The earliest history of Kashmir, however, was recorded by the poet-chronicler Kalhana in the 12th century. In his Rajatarangine (`River of Kings'), he traces the rise and fall of dynasties, the changing fortunes of kings and faiths; across his stage stride heroes and villains of almost epic dimensions. Peace and prosperity, strife and bloodshed are cyclical in his chronicles. There is the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, whose conquest of Kashmir in 250 BC brought Buddhism to the area, and who is credited with the founding of the original city of Srinagar ( present day Pandrathan ). There are the Indo-Scything Kushana kings, whose sway extended from Central Asia well into Upper India, and who were part of the way of Scything immigration which, for almost 300 years, came pouring down from Central Asia. Under them, Buddhism was at its zenith in Kashmir, and the benign and pious impulse of the Kushana monarch, Kanishka, led to a Great Council of Divines being held near Srinagar in the first century. Almost five centuries later, the faith suffered at the hands of Mihirigula, the White Hun, a man who was said to seldom smile and whose approach was signalled by `vultures, crows and other birds, which were flying ahead eager to feed on those who were to be slain'. Mihirigula's bloodthirsty depredations were mercifully short-lived. Less than a century later, around AD 600, the Karkota Dynasty was established which produced one of the most remarkable heroes in Kashmir's history, Lalitaditya.
Lalitaditya ruled in the eighth century; he was a contemporary of Charlemagne and, like him, ambitious. Conquest extended his territories, but he was also a wise monarch who practiced religious tolerance and brought prosperity to his people. Towns, temples, roads and canals were built; to him is ascribed the glorious Sun Temple at Martand, now in ruins, whose superb site and monumental proportions are eloquent testimony to the splendor of his reign.
Next only to Martand rank the ruins of the Hindu temples of Avantipura, the creation of Avantivarman, another great Karkota king, whose reign in the tenth century saw a period of peace and consolidation. Avantivarman was the last great karkota king and after him the dynasty plunged into confusion and anarchy.
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, another Hindu dynasty, the Lohara, ruled Kashmir. But theirs were uneasy times, full of petty intrigues within and the incursions of mountain people without.
The first Islamic dynasty established itself in Kashmir in the 14th century, but Islam had come to Kashmir much earlier. The corruption and avarice of the Hindu rulers had turned many towards the simplicity and humane piety of Muslim divines, such as Bulbul Shah and Hamza Makhdumi. Early Islam in Kashmir was mellow and tolerant, preaching universal brotherhood. The shrill call for proselytization, often encountered elsewhere in India, was not heard here. But this was reversed in the late 14th to early 15th century during the reign of Sikander, a fanatic who wrought havoc of Hindus temples and offered his subjects the choice of conversion or death. Many fled, many were killed and many were converted.
What the father had done, the son sought to undo. Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin ( 1420 - 70 ) is remembered even today as the Badshah, the Great King, who rebuilt what his father had destroyed and recalled his Hindu subjects, elevating many to high positions. Literature and language flourished at his court. Had built bridges and irrigation canals and, most importantly, introduced from Samarkand and Bukhara some of those handicrafts for which Kashmir is famous today, such as papier-mache and carpet weaving. But the Badshah was an exception. Once again, disarray prevailed and true stability was to come only with the rule of the great Mughals.
Akbar, perhaps the greatest Mughal of them all, conquered Kashmir in 1586; in turn, its beauty captivated him, calling it his private garden. Akbar came to Kashmir thrice. Enduring the heat of the plains, he traveled on roads specially prepared for him by an army of stonecutters and mountain miners. It was he who laid out Nasim Bagh, the first of Kashmir's exquisite Mughal gardens, the enduring memorials to Mughal rule. For Akbar's son Jahangir, Kashmir was an obsessive passion. Leading his long baggage train, he journeyed to Kashmir eight times, creating the gardens of Shalimar, Verinag and Achhbal. On his death-bed, when asked if there was anything he wanted, he is said to have murmured, `Kashmir, only Kashmir'.